Senior State Department Official Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Tunisia

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
November 13, 2015

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody, and thanks for joining us for this background call on the U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue which the Secretary will be participating in tomorrow in Tunis. With us today as your briefer is [Senior State Department Official]. [Senior State Department Official] will be known on background as a senior State Department official.

[Senior State Department Official] is going to have a few minutes of comments to kind of kick this off and put this Strategic Dialogue into some context, and then we’ll get right to your questions. We have about 15 minutes to do this, so I’d ask that when we go to your questions if we could limit follow-ups so that more – that the most people can have the opportunity to ask questions as possible.

So with that, I’m going to turn it over to senior State Department official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi everybody. Thanks for joining. I’ll also try to be pretty brief in my remarks so that we have some time for questions. Very much looking forward to the visit to Tunis and the Strategic Dialogue and the other meetings the Secretary will be having in Tunis.

Just to highlight the main points, as I think you all know, since its revolution, Tunisia has taken a number of impressive steps to build an accountable democracy. It’s a very important place and it’s a counterpoint to those who assert that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy as Tunisia, Islamists, secularists, and others have been working together, working to build consensus and build a democratic government. Tunisia is the only country that Freedom House ranks as free, and that’s noteworthy. And of course, very recently the Nobel Committee recognized the National Dialogue Quartet with the Nobel Prize precisely for the kind of – the consensus building and the social cooperation that we’ve seen in Tunisia that has helped move its democratic transition forward. And we – that’s – it’s certainly an award that we heartily endorse.

Now, obviously, this – consolidating a democracy is very tough, and Tunisia is going to need some time to build its institutions and so on, but it is making great progress in that regard. It does face some challenges. You all would be aware of the security challenges – the attacks that took place earlier this year first at the Bardo Museum and then in Sousse – just underline the threats that Tunisia faces. Its economy is – also faces a lot of challenges after decades of mismanagement during the previous regime. We have been standing firmly with Tunisia since the revolution. We’ve provided over $700 million in assistance to – across the field – economic support, development support, security, governance, and so on.

And the visit that is coming up that we’re doing tomorrow, this builds on the May visit of President Caid Essebsi here to Washington. And it was during that visit that Tunisia was designated a major non-NATO ally, and more recently at the UN General Assembly, Tunisia joined the counter-ISIL coalition.

So the Secretary will open the dialogue and will launch it, and the dialogue then breaks down into three working groups – an economic working group, a security working group, and a democracy and partnerships working group – that will be led by senior State Department officials with some other colleagues on board. And the president – the Secretary is also going to meet President Caid Essebsi and the foreign minister and also the National Dialogue Quartet.

We will plan to use this visit and use these meetings to underline our support for Tunisia’s democracy, its efforts to build its security and develop its economy. And various working groups will talk about different aspects of those areas, but I feel like maybe I’ve already talked too much and – because we don’t have a lot of time, so maybe I should let folks ask questions.

MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, please go ahead and let’s open it up.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. The first question is from Pamela Dockins from Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing this. A question about Tunisia’s economy in particular. As you’re aware, as a result of the terrorist attacks at the museum and the hotel earlier this year, the tourism industry in particular has taken a plunge. Is the U.S. offering anything in the way of deliverables or stepped-up security to help with this measure?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we have a continuing dialogue with the Tunisians on both economic and security issues, and we have had for some time. The Sousse attack resulted in a stepped-up security consultation process between Tunisia and the G7 which we also participate in and which we found very useful to prioritize and de-conflict and so on and make sure we’re all helping Tunisia in the best way possible.

When we’re in Tunisia, we’ll be talking about things like the loan guarantee that Tunisia is seeking, and we’ll talk about a joint economic commission that we’re setting up to focus strictly on economic issues. So those are certainly things we want to touch on.

OPERATOR: And the next question is from Barbara Usher from TBC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. That’s BBC, actually. Do you have any comments about the fact that the government is imploding just as Mr. Kerry is coming to visit the – a section of the ruling party withdrew over infighting yesterday, I believe.

And also just to follow up about the security assistance, you mentioned an overall amount of money for assistance across the field. Have you also got any, like, operational assistance, trainers on the ground, or counterterrorism efforts? And has that been increased since the attacks? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As far as Tunisia’s internal politics go, obviously it’s something that we follow very closely. As I said, Tunisia’s putting together this kind of broad-based coalition, as Tunisia has done – is a challenging thing to put together and to maintain. And we just want to encourage all of our Tunisian friends to work together to build on the progress they’ve already made so far. I’m not going to get into the details of our security cooperation. We do have and continue to have security cooperation with the – with our Tunisian friends, examining ways that we can help build, and for example, border security capabilities and so on. But – we look at how we might help with training and things like that, but I think that’s as far as I’ll go on that topic.

OPERATOR: And for additional questions, please press * followed by 1, *1 for questions.

Okay. And we have a question from Pamela Dockins from Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: It’s actually a follow-up question. In your opening remarks, you mentioned that the U.S. has provided more than $700 million to Tunisia. Do you have a timeframe for that? Is that this year, a couple of years, or what’s the frame for that specifically?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s since 2011, since the revolution.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: And the next question is from Barbara Usher from BBC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, this is also just a follow-up question with regards to security. There were rumors, quite a lot of controversial reports, in Tunisia around July that the U.S. was planning to shift its military base from Sicily to Tunisia, which the government has denied. I assume that isn’t the case, but I wondered if you had – could respond to that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, that’s right. There have been and there – actually, there are continuously reports from time to time in Tunisia about establishing a U.S. base there, which the Tunisian Government has repeatedly tried to knock down but they keep popping up. But that’s not the case.

OPERATOR: And the next question is from David Brunnstrom from Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I just wanted to – you mentioned the loan guarantee. Can you be a bit more specific as to the sort of assistance the United States is going to be giving in that regard?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve done a couple of loan guarantees for Tunisia in the past. During President Caid Essebsi’s visit in the spring, they asked for another one in the amount of $500 million. What we’re going to do is be talking to them about – to sort of start initiate discussions about how we might be able to do that. Agreeing on such a thing, negotiating the terms and implementing it is a complex thing. That’s a discussion that we’re going to start. But that sort of gives you a rough outline of where we are.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And once again, for questions, please press * followed by 1, *1 for questions.

And we presently have no questions. Please continue.

MODERATOR: Okay. Well, I think that may conclude the questions here today, but I wanted to offer our senior State Department official an opportunity, if you have any closing comments to offer to the group.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I just – thank you again. Thank you for your attention. We’re very much looking forward to the visit. We think it’s a really good opportunity to highlight all that Tunisia has accomplished, and we think the program that we’ve put together with our Tunisian partners is going to help do that. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate your time today.